Learning about Physics :: A Project-Based Learning Approach

We are quite fortunate to be part of a homeschooling group that’s willing to try new things. This group of five families also thinks that it’s important for children to learn and play together. Although our backgrounds and choices are not always the same, we all value self-direction and creativity.

Learning about space exploration - a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Learning about space exploration – a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Hence, they were all willing to go along with the idea of offering a project-based learning class during our co-op class meetings for this Fall. I have done some student-led, project-based learning with my own children and truly value the deep learning that comes as a result. I have also participated in the PBH Master Class and have read the accompanying book and I know that it can work…if you are patient, keep your mouth shut, record your observations, and ask lots of questions.

A homemade book on the history of space travel...in progress...from last year.

A homemade book on the history of space travel…in progress…August 2014.

Plus, it’s been more than a year since I started down that road, so I feel a bit more confident in letting things develop and “going with the flow” with regards to student-directed learning.  After much discussion and haphazard explanations (on my part), our group decided to set the topic – physics – and set a timeline (6-8 weeks, depending on what the kids need).

Most of the children in our group, ranging in ages from 5 – 11, are new to project-based learning so I wrote up a general description of expectations. I even included a number of wide-ranging sample projects that they could choose, but were not obligated to do so. In true project-based learning, you do not even suggest projects, but many of them were used to completing pre-designed curriculum and I was afraid they would get frustrated before they even began. I shouldn’t have worried.

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks?

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks? Experiments on force!

For the first class, and to spark our enthusiasm about the different aspects of physics, I brought this book and we (briefly) discussed it in class. Rather, my kids were eager to show it off (it does have pop-ups after all), but everyone was excited to get to the experiments that we had brought. Each family prepared an experiment (or two or three) that reflected a different aspect of physics.  The emphasis was less on “displaying” your experiment and more on letting others experience how science works. Of course, I brought my circuit blocks.

Working on solving the problem!

Working on solving the problem!

Not only did many of the kids bring their own ideas to the projects, but by bringing a physics experiment, many had already learned about some aspects of physics. And, they were happy to explain how and why it worked the way it did. All on their own…often without any adult prompts.

Experiments on magnetism - how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

Experiments on magnetism – how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

After spending an hour and a half working with the different experiments, the kids went off into the library to do some research. We had reserved a meeting room for this first class, so we would have an easy transition to library resources.

Even though I had done this before, it’s still hard to resist the urge to make suggestions and try to guide them to a more “educational” project. I can’t say I was thrilled when almost all of the boys chose the “sample” project of building a catapult (though, I should have known that would appeal to them). However, they are working in groups and will be learning to collaborate. In addition, once they build it they’ll have to figure why it works so they can teach it to the other kids (and adults).  Next time, I would probably give general suggestions on the “assignment” sheet and offer less specific examples.

My boys inadvertently made catapults while working on another project…it’s on their minds.

As the kids were gathering books, I asked questions to see what they were thinking about…and to ensure that we have the supplies they need for our meeting next week. So far there’s a great need for rubberbands, sticks and perhaps a complicated pulley-system. I know that my boys were thinking about their project all week, so I’m excited to see how things go for our next meeting. Will everyone have the supplies they need? Will the adults be able to figure out what the kids need – without offering suggestions? Will we be able to work through the group conflicts? I think so. I hope so. And, if not, then we’ll learn something too.

Check out the next post to see how the group is progressing.